I work in the field of information systems and cultural heritage. A significant part of my work is related to the description of things that are of interest to cultural heritage specialists such as archaeologists or anthropologists. These things include objects such as paintings, tools or utensils; structures such as buildings or caves; places such as mountains or towns; etc. Most of the time, the things we need to describe are real, i.e. we can perceive them through our senses and thus give a conventional account of them. However, sometimes we need to deal with things (of the above mentioned kinds) that are imaginary, such as Atlantis (an imaginary place) or Excalibur (the sword which Merlin supposedly got from the Lady of the Lake).

The consensus between researchers seem to be that a sword is a sword is a sword, and thus imaginary swords are described in terms of their purported physical properties, use, chronology and other attributes very much like any real sword. Of course, one would note down that this particular sword happens to be imaginary, and one should not expect to find it in a museum.

However, places are trickier to deal with. The essence of a place seems to be its spatial location, and imaginary places often lack that, i.e. they don't have a well-defined or known location. For this reason, researchers rarely describe imaginary places in the same terms as they would describe real places. Rather, they use accessory attributes (such as what happened there or who lived there) instead of their physical location in the world.

After thinking for a while about this, I am wondering about the nature of imaginary things. For objects (such as the sword in my example), imaginary and real don't seem to differ that much. For places, however, the difference is crucial.

So my question is, are there any works on the ontology (and/or epistemology) of the imaginary that I can look at? Are there any mainstream or accepted takes on this problem? Thank you.

  • 2
    Very interesting problem. I deal with this question too in my research field. Maybe you can read Aleida Assmann´s "Erinnerungsräume" (Espacios de recuerdos). On the other side, maybe the idea of "imaginary object" has something to do with the notion of "symbol". See for example Jean-Jacques Wunenburger "La vie des images", Presses Universitaires de Strasbourg, 1995. Regards.
    – Strabo
    Sep 13, 2013 at 16:34
  • @Strabo: Thank you. I will look at the references that you mention.
    – CesarGon
    Sep 13, 2013 at 19:48
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    Great question. Essentially, the answer depends on who you ask and what their metaphysical framework of things is. I would start with Meinong and his ideas on non-existence, then to Russel, Kripke, etc. What we can say today is that there are two large categories: realism and irrealism. In the prior, imaginary (fictitious) things exist, and for the latter, they don't. Depending upon which camp you begin with, you will find different opinions on the matter.
    – jacob
    Sep 14, 2013 at 3:22
  • @jacob: Are you saying that irreal and imaginary are different?
    – CesarGon
    Sep 14, 2013 at 11:29
  • @jacob: BTW, I'm checking out Meinong and it looks promising. Many thanks.
    – CesarGon
    Sep 14, 2013 at 18:28

4 Answers 4


To say that existence is determined by an aggregate of qualia is to take a stand, is not a "neutral" position. One can easily defend, actually with quite solid empirical evidence, that there is an indissociable imaginary (even fictional, without any concession) ingredient in the construction/perception of every object we deem perfectly real.

I would look for literature in the cognitive sciences that could help you strenghen you position, bypassing ontology and epistemology for now (we don't need too big guns here). What comes to my memory right now is the book by Varela, Thompson and Rosch, "The embodied mind" (http://mitpress.mit.edu/books/embodied-mind).

More practically, I'd say that if you are in a position to deliberately include fictional stuff in your data model, as if they were real, and get away with it, my advice is only one:

Have fun.

  • Many thanks for your answer. I'll look at the book you suggest, definitely.
    – CesarGon
    May 11, 2015 at 13:04

This SEP article contains a review of contemporary positions and arguments, regarding fictional (imaginary) objects. Four main positions are discussed:
Possibilism: fictional objects are possible entities,
Meinungianism: fictional objects are actual entities,
Creationism: fictional objects are author dependent entities,
Anti Realism: fictional objects are not entities (they do not exist).

Fictional locations are not discussed separately. It is remarked that with locations it is common that a real location is contained in a fiction. For example, Sherlock Holmes lived in London. There is some controversy whether Holmes's London is the real London, or a fictional counterpart of the real London.


I dont know in what way u have seen the picture through your mind and asked this question but the question here to me seems to be of real and imaginary existence of things and objects ....so taking a anology of imaginary number theory I would like to say that - "If observationary existence of object disappears then the imaginary existence of that object still remains in presence" In the same way if a number is deattached from it's frame of existence then the number is on the way to be unreal. Like the dreams that we perceive when we are sleeping ,at that time most of our senses are inactive with respect to when we are awake .The frame of existence inside our dream is a mixture of a real world experience with its property embodied to a deattached frame of possibilities.


A great book on this topic is: "The World of Imagination: Sum and Substance" by Eva T.H. Brann. I will share an excerpt that I think may capture the essence of the inquiry:

...an intuitive medium, an inner space---that is to say an internal externality---is an irresoluble contradiction in terms. "Inner space" should always be in quotation marks. The soul is at most space-like. But when all is said and done, what is space-like except space? The problem, under different perspectives is perennial. A little less than three quarters of a millennium ago it was a current question how the incorporeal angels actually occupied real places, that is, how spirits eventuated in space. My present problem, no less fascinating, is the inverse of Thomas's: How do souls encompass a representational space? It is a problem that can be blinked by ascribing it to mistaken manners of speech. One might, for example, claim that extension is literally and falsely attributed to consciousness because extended objects are metaphorically called "contents of consciousness" (Seifert 1979). Or one might attribute the perplexity to the equivocation of the phrases "inner space" and "quasi space". But it is not the ways of speech that cause the problem. It is the perplexity that induces such manners of speech.

I personally agree with her. Especially the last part. If it is not a neurological description given that is the result of an attempt to "conflate the map with the territory" (e.g. brains = what the brain may imagine and/or dream about) then the problem is said to be the result of a manner of speech and is left at that.

Consider the following from a book called "The Emergence of Dreaming: Mind-Wandering, Embodied Simulation, and the Default Network" by G. William Domhoff in the chapter called: "The emergence of dreaming in children and adolescents" where they state:

(Pg. 120-121)

"Once again demonstrating that knowledge of waking events often precedes understandings about dreams, children who grasped the difference between appearance and reality, or knew that someone can have a different perspective on an object than they do, did not always understand that dreams have no material reality or that dreaming is private to the dreamer."

This statement is another demonstration of the perplexity that Dr. Brann is alluding to. One could say that the statement of dreams having no material reality could be a manner of speaking about dreams but then they go on to say that such an event is private to the dreamer. Meaning that it is inaccessible to anyone other than. What is inferred, nonetheless, is that whatever it is that is private seems to be "space-like" like any other place that one has visited. Thus why Dr. Brann asks the question above.

What is also interesting about the assertion made by the neuro and cognitive scientists in the book above is that it is a result of adhering to the doctrine of materialism. Go figure!

Hope this helps.

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